They weren't called "sad irons" because the women who used them were depressed.
The term was in reference to the weight of the iron; in the early 1800s, the word "sad" meant "heavy." The average weight of these cast-iron tools was 15 pounds.
In this modern day and age, permanent-press clothing has practically done away with the tedious task of ironing. But in days of old, before the steam iron was invented, ironing was a necessary chore that demanded that the user stand next to a hot stove and repeatedly heft heavy irons from stove top to ironing board.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, everyday clothing and household linens were made from 100 percent cotton or flax linen and, after laundering, both demanded heavy pressing with hot irons to remove wrinkles.
Rose Fine of Essex remembers using old-fashioned sad irons when she was a young girl growing up in Pennsylvania coal country in the 1940s.
"We would stand next to a coal stove to work because we always kept a couple of sad irons heating up, since they cooled off while you used them. We would spit on the bottom of the iron to see if it was hot enough to press out wrinkles. But if it got too hot, it would scorch the fabric. I remember we ironed everything — even sheets and underwear."
When asked what the fabric was like, Rose replied, "Mother made most of our clothing from printed feed-sack cloth, and it needed to be ironed. It was hard work for a young girl. They started us early; I was about 7 years old when I began."
The practice of removing wrinkles from clothing started with the Greeks around 400 B.C. when they invented the "goffering iron," a tool similar to a rolling pin that could be heated and rolled along linen robes to press in pleats. Later the Romans devised the "hand mangle," a flat, metal paddle that was used, without heat, to beat wrinkles out of clothing.
By 800 A.D., the Chinese had invented the "pan iron," which looked similar to a small, ornate saucepan with a thick, heavy bottom. The open pan was filled with hot coals, which transferred heat to the bottom, and wrinkles were pressed smooth by running it along fabric.
In Scandinavia, by 900 A.D., the Vikings were using a mushroom-shaped glass tool called a "linen smoother" to remove wrinkles and set pleats in damp clothing.
By the 1300s, the "flat iron" was invented in Europe. It was just as it sounded, a flat piece of iron with a handle on it that could be heated by fire and then used to press out wrinkles. Wealthy Europeans had servants to launder and iron their clothing. Flat irons and a long, thin variation of the goffering irons (about the diameter of a pool cue) were used to form the huge, pleated collars called "ruffs" that were so popular during the 1500s.
In the 1600s, the Dutch invented the "hot box," a type of iron made from brass and copper with a hinged lid that opened to reveal an enclosure for a tiny charcoal fire. One of the struggles with flat irons and hot boxes, though, was the transfer of soot that often dirtied the clothes.
It was the invention of the cast-iron cook stove in the 1820s that paved the way for the sad iron. The stove kept the fire enclosed, making it easier to heat irons without getting soot on them. The heavier the iron, the quicker wrinkles were pressed out, so it became the practice of women everywhere to have a set of three heavy sad irons — two were always left heating on the stove while one was being used.
The biggest problem with sad irons, though, was the transfer of heat to the handle, which often resulted in burns. It was John Alexander of Brooklyn who first tackled the problem by patenting a flat iron with a removable wooden handle in 1866. The handle connected to the center of the iron by means of a rod that fit like a puzzle piece into the top of the iron. The idea was a great one, but it never caught on because the transfer of pressure to move the iron from the center was awkward. Furthermore, there were problems with uneven heating. The pointed end of the sad iron was often so hot it scorched cloth, while the wide flat end was too cool to press out wrinkles.
In March 1870, a young woman named Mary Potts revolutionized ironing history by applying for a patent that changed the shape of the iron and remedied the problem of uneven heating. Her design featured an iron with two pointed ends and a sturdy, removable wood handle that arched from point to point, making it easier to transfer pressure and move the iron. She also solved the problem of uneven heat transfer by partially filling the inside of the iron with plaster. By 1895, Mrs. Potts Sad Irons were the most famous brand in the world. A set of three, (each weighing 15¾ pounds) with one stand (trivet) and one detachable walnut handle, could be had for 65 cents from Montgomery Ward's catalog.
By the turn of the 20th century, many companies were imitating Mrs. Potts's famous irons, but hers remained the most popular. The electric steam iron was invented in 1926, but it wasn't until the years following the Great Depression that they saw widespread use.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her websites www.redbarnantiques.org or www.celluloidforever.co.